New Journalism Lifts Off: Non-Fiction at 0 G's

Jonathan Bortinger '04, English 171, Brown University, Autumn 2003

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Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe are important figures in the development of a modern style of non-fiction writing. They transformed journalistic writing into an engaging, almost novelistic form, which is filled with characters, metaphors, and morals. An examination of Mailer and Wolfe's books on space exploration, a thoroughly modern topic, is an appropriate subject to study their contributions to modern non-fiction writing. Mailer wrote Of a Fire on the Moon in 1969, shortly after the first successful mission to the moon and Wolfe wrote The Right Stuff substantially after the first manned space flights by America that it discusses. These two books are filled with multiple devices of non-fiction writing that engage readers. Of a Fire on the Moon and The Right Stuff are informative examples of how authors can shape historical events into a narrative. The tone that Mailer and Wolfe use are often quite different and serve to illustrate how similar topics can be approached in multiple ways.

Wolfe and Mailer discuss different reasons behind America's space program. Wolfe is much more concerned with the "Single Combatant" aspect of a space race of America against the Soviet Union. Wolfe fills his prose with passages about how America felt threatened by the possibility that the Soviet Union would surpass America's space capabilities. He often assumes the voice of the concerned public, "The ability to launch Sputniks dramatized the ability to launch nuclear warheads on ICBMs. But in these neo-superstitious times it cam to dramatize much more than that. It dramatized the entire technological and intellectual capability of the two nations and the strength of the national wills and spirits" (103). Wolfe is looking back on a time that was wrapped up in a competition for the control of the stars. Although he is writing as a journalist, he often uses the public's voice to illustrate the emotions of the early space race, ""It was glorious! It was crazy!" (104). If Wolfe had used less emphatic content then the responsibilities of the astronauts would not resonate much and the "Right Stuff" would mean much less. Wolfe transformed journalism to characterize beyond just the facts.

Yet Mailer and Wolfe are always giving readers many facts. Both Mailer and Wolfe discuss the different roles the astronauts had as test pilots and astronauts. Mailer and Wolfe recognize how the astronauts no longer flew planes as they had done as test pilots. This is an important observation by both authors, who use the format of New Journalism to show readers that the space program involved new responsibilities for highly trained men. As pilots no longer controlled the flight of a test plane, they realized that they were sacrificing the control they had over their aircraft to ride a rocket, in which they have barely any power. Mailer describes this sense of loss, "Where once they might have been testing planes every two or three days, now they do not have more than one rocket flight every two or three years" (322). Similarly, Wolfe describes the urge of the first astronauts to pilot any type of plane, which was evident with the division between the pilots of the X-15 and the Mercury rockets. This reveals to readers what astronauts did before they became astronauts, which is essential to having a complete understanding of the achievement of going into space. Successful non-fiction writers often give readers a more complete picture of an event by uncovering background material, like the astronauts' desire to be at the controls of experimental aircraft.

The authors not only acknowledge the loss of flying time, but also the sacrifice of privacy, which came along with being a test pilot. The astronauts serve multiple purposes in Mailer and Wolfe's works. They are warriors, explorers, engineers, dutiful Protestants, and country folk. Because these two writers make the astronauts assume so many roles, Mailer and Wolfe are careful to also characterize how NASA packages the astronauts to serve America's needs. Although the astronauts may have their own distinct personalities, Mailer and Wolfe are careful to show how NASA never lets their individuality precede the mission. This is masterfully illustrated by Mailer:

As test pilots they flew rocket planes at four thousand miles an hour and lived as they pleased, free to carry a drinking party to the dawn or to search for solitude; now that they were astronauts they were obliged to live in homes of a certain price in suburbs of an impeccable predictability in a world of public relations where they were rendered subservient to propriety by a force of mysterious propriety within NASA itself. [322]

Wolfe acknowledges a similar pattern by showing how as test pilots, the astronauts would drive around the desert near Edwards Air force Base and then as astronauts, they would be placed into the manicured lawns of suburbia and be expected to behave. Wolfe takes the annoyed tone of one of the astronauts; "There was no flying whatsoever on their training agenda!" (125). As non-fiction writers, the authors not only observe the changes these astronauts undergo, but also examine some of the forces behind their transformations. Mailer and Wolfe present what the astronauts are like within their own crowd and also how the public and outsiders see the astronauts.

Like John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle, who showed how high status developed from a strong character and honest work can be more important than wealth, Mailer and Wolfe describe how Astronauts are the most revered professionals in the country while only making a middle class income. Although both authors acknowledge that the astronauts receive contracts from Life Magazine and benefits from NASA, the astronauts never become wealthy because of their job. It has been an important theme of non-fiction writing to contrast high status and honor with wealth. Many non-fiction writers have examined the inconsistencies of society. John McPhee, in The Crofter and the Laird, presented the relatively poor crofters with honor and charm and showed that the laird had some degree of humility, as he dressed in an old-fashioned outfit to greet tourists. Likewise, Mailer and Wolfe are successful in capturing the identity of astronauts because they present them multi-dimensionally, in a characteristically complex world.

There are significant differences in how much Mailer and Wolfe identify with the astronauts. Although both authors place the astronauts on a lofty pedestal, only Wolfe uses his writing to assume a similar posture as the astronauts. Wolfe often writes as if he is seeing the world through the eyes of the astronauts. He does so effectively because he has established an ethos by sharing his great knowledge of astronaut culture. A passage like, "from the very beginning this 'astronaut' business was just an unbelievable good deal," (108) reads as if it came from an astronaut's autobiography. Wolfe does not build his ethos as a distanced observer like D.H Lawrence or many other writers. Whereas a reader can almost imagine Wolfe in a flight suit, D.H. Lawrence would makes his readers always conscious that the author is only a traveler or a visitor (Natasha Bronn, "Of One Nation?"). In Twilight in Italy, D.H. Lawrence allows readers to see Italy, intimately and filled with details, but only as an outsider. Lawrence is an observer of many of the cultural, historical, and natural aspects of Italy, yet he does not write as if he is an Italian who would have an innate sense of the land. Lawrence is in the process of discovering Italy as he writes. Thus, either embodying a character in a narrative or being a distanced observer are just two ways a non-fiction writer can build ethos and bring readers into an experience.

Mailer includes the equipment and machinery of the Saturn-Apollo vehicles as additional characters. Mailer describes the journey to the moon as more of a marriage between man and technology than does Wolfe. Mailer often turns the attention of the reader to examine the details of technology built into the Saturn rocket, the lunar module, and the space suits. He deliberately alters the flow of his book with sentences such as, "It is time to look at the Lunar Module" (343). This type of sentence signals to readers that technology is an integral part of the mission and must be examined with as much care as the astronauts. Mailer cares very much about the "psychology of machines." Mailer is always pressing on his readers that the astronauts are often at the mercy of their machines. This passage illustrates how critical technology is to the astronauts' mission,

It will come as no surprise that without that deumescence of development in computers which saturated the electronics of the Fifties and the Sixties, without the five IBM 360/75 computers and the IBM 1460's on the floor of the Real-Time Computer Complex at Mission Control Center there would have been no trip to the moon, and indeed no Instrument Unit on Apollo-Saturn. [357]

By going to extremes of reciting the dimensions and features of the space vehicles, Mailer pushes non-fiction writing into the realm of technical writing, where calibrated values are as important as descriptive adjectives. Mailer uses his engineering background in developing an authority, which he uses to discuss the difference between engineering and physics with passion: "So physics was love and engineering was marriage. Physics was sex, conception and the communion of the family -- engineering was getting the eggs out on time" (178). The astronauts inhabited a terrain of machinery, where bizarre forces like the tendency for computers to malfunction, continually emerge. Mailer's periodic references to these forces are similar to Bruce Chatwin's sporadic allusions to the creepy powers that inhabit Patagonia. By mentioning strange phenomena throughout their texts, Mailer and Chatwin effectively describe worlds beyond the reach of many readers.

However, Wolfe rarely mentions the achievements of the engineers. By describing the forces the astronauts experienced during flight, Wolfe gives readers an idea of the power that these engineers controlled. Although Wolfe never revered the engineers as much as Mailer, who himself was eeducated as an engineer, Wolfe did describe the high-pressure in which environment they worked: "NASA engineers and technicians at the Cape were pushing themselves so hard in the final weeks people had to be ordered home to rest. It was a grueling time and yet the sort of interlude of adrenal exhilaration that men remember all their lives" (193). Wolfe generously shows that excitement was not only experienced by the astronauts but also by the people who pushed them into space. Wolfe expands the emotional experience of the space race beyond the astronauts to include the engineers, the astronaut's wives, and the rest of America, who all celebrated when Glenn orbited the earth and returned home safely. Wolfe, like Joan Didion in The White Album, connected multiple elements of the fractured society of the 1960's into an overarching narrative.

The differences in Wolfe's and Mailer's approaches may derive from their different styles and because they write about different periods of the American space program. Yet they are both tuned to the complex contradictions that persist throughout NASA and America during the 1950s and '60s. Wolfe describes the earliest period in the American space program, when the mission of the astronauts was to escape the grasp of Earth's gravity, orbit the Earth, and return safely. Although those early rockets had tremendous power, they paled in comparison to the Saturn Rockets, which carried much more sophisticated equipment. Wolfe describes the manner of those early flights, "There was very little action that an astronaut could take in a Mercury capsule, other than to abort the flight and save his own life. So he was not being trained to fly the capsule. He was being trained to ride in it" (155). Although Wolfe proceeds to discuss how the astronauts' responsibilities were analogous to those of a test monkey's, he then describes that only those with the "Right Stuff" can handle such an experience. The astronauts, he says, are not only special because of their ability to perform amazing maneuvers in jets, but also because they are able to do nothing and remain calm in crisis situations. Mailer picks up the story of the Astronauts after their functions in space have evolved from chimpanzee status into homo sapiens, capable of controlling most functions of space flight. Mailer not only appreciates the astronauts for their "Iron Will" analogous to Wolfe's "Right Stuff," but also for their technical knowledge and broad skill set. Mailer and Wolfe, like John McPhee and Annie Dillard, are able to write about the paradoxes in nature. Wolfe sees how astronauts act like fighter jocks and Zen monks, whereas Mailer sees them as both subservient to their computers and ultimately in control of their digital companions. These authors transform inaction into a form of action for the astronauts, at a time when the reading public may not have appreciated how the responsibilities of the astronauts were so complex and varied.

Wolfe and Mailer are also cued to anti-climatic scenes. Many non-fiction writers use techniques to deflect a reader's attention. Ruskin, for example, shifts the topic of his speech on the building of a new exchange, in his essay Traffic. Writers have control over how the readers experiences events. Wolfe and Mailer could have avoided discussing failed launches or aborted missions. This would have, however, undercut their ethos because it would have prevented them from showing the full spectrum of obstacles the astronauts overcame. For instance, Wolfe repeatedly mentions that the American rockets "always blow up." The anti-climatic scenes are effective in building up the pressures in a reader, who waits for liftoff. Wolfe goes down through a full countdown, only to halt it. This mimics the roller coaster of emotions felt by the astronauts as they waited for a GO signal to liftoff, only to be taken off their massive missile. Mailer takes readers down through a full countdown to show the enormous energies involved with launching men into space. This makes the actual takeoff even more enormous, as the astronauts leaped away from the bonds of gravity and also faulty technology. Readers are likely to continue the ride along with Wolfe and Mailer because they have also experienced its failures and are eager to share in the joy of a successful mission, which the authors promised to deliver.

Mailer and Wolfe often use humor to diffuse some of the tension that is built up throughout their books. Humor effectively includes readers in the camaraderie felt by astronauts and mission control. By letting their character's actions speak for themselves in terms of bravery, Mailer and Wolfe also include the astronauts' snappy remarks to show that they have a touch of humor, which makes them more human. Mailer focuses on a possibly ironic moment, when the astronauts are prepared to begin their walk on the Moon, when they have trouble opening the door of the Lunar Module. Mailer comments, "how intolerably comic they would appear if they came all the way and then were blocked before a door thy could not crack" (398). This passage illustrates how a substantial achievement like reaching the moon may become endangered by an apparently minor stumbling. Since all readers can identify with a moment when they were about to stumble and then recovered, this light passage importantly connects readers to this scene on the moon. Wolfe also uses humor throughout his book, often using the remarks of the astronauts for his punch lines.

Another technique that is common among non-fiction writers involves the use of lists. These create dense passages, which convey the depths and breadths of a topic using minimal space. They are often effective ways of presenting the sound of a foreign language. John McPhee, in The Crofter and the Laird often uses lists of place names on Colonsay to give readers a feel for the sounds of this Scottish island. Mailer often uses lists to convey the amount of information used in launching men to the moon. Mailer ties information density to technological progress and man's mastery of the solar system. Mailer writes almost a full page of the major companies and organizations that all use computers and then continues with many of the names of the programs that are run on those machines, "ADAM and BINAC and BRAINIAC, CALCULO and CLASS, ENIAC, ERMA, ILLIAC, JOHNNIAC, LARC, AND MANIAC" (357). Mailer connects this list of complicated names to the reasons for them. Computers speed thought by processing bits of information more rapidly than humans could do. However, these are the early generation of computer languages before the introduction of Microsoft Windows, and many modern readers are no longer familiar with them. By using a list, Mailer can connect readers to the past just as McPhee does with place names on Colonsay, which originally had meaning, but now are just strings of sound. Yet writers must be careful not to use lists of facts from their era, which may become poorly known pieces of trivia foreign to later generations of readers. Modern readers often have difficulty understanding the significance of such Carlyle's references to Hudson's Statue.

Both authors are concerned with what the astronauts sound like. They care about the language the astronauts use, though they concentrate on different aspects of the astronaut's dialogue. On one hand, Mailer includes many passages of technical language, filled with abbreviations and numbers. For example Collins says "I gave it back to the computer for a second. I put the mode switch from manual back to CMC while I fooled with the DSKY, and the computer drove the star off out of sight, so the delay here has been in going back to manual and finding the star again which I've finally done, and just a second here, I'll go to enter and get a 51 and mark on it" (258). Mailer shows how the astronauts engage in technical jargon with mission control. Mailer has prepared for the account of the mission in space by illustrating how intelligent and well-trained the astronauts are. Readers would also sound fake if they imitated Mailer's astronauts or if they tried to imitate the southern vernacular commonly used by Wolfe's. Not only are the astronauts well versed in technical jargon, but also their own code words and slang.

Wolfe and Mailer also approach the dialogue of the astronauts differently. Mailer segregates it into italicized passages. Mailer uses actual recordings of the conversations between the astronauts and mission control. He also describes the static, pauses, and sounds of these recordings. This has the effect of placing readers into the mission control room, where they can overhear CAPCOM speaking to Collins, Armstrong, and Aldrin. Wolfe, however, inflects his own prose with the twang of the fighter pilots, especially Chuck Yeager. This achieves a similar effect of giving readers the feeling that they are privy to private conversations between pilots on the radio.

Wolfe speaks through his character's voice. By writing with the tone of a pilot, Wolfe builds his ethos as if he was part of the select few who can converse naturally with pilots. Readers are more likely to believe Wolfe's abstract concepts of the "Right Stuff" if they hear a pilot talk about it. Wolfe almost seems to be part of the group of Mercury astronauts in this passage, "But f'r chrisake . . . Yeager was only saying what was obvious to all the rocket pilots who had flown at Edwards" (106). Yet Wolfe inserts his own tone into other passages that use the voice of a pilot (Rachel Aviv, "Yeager's Drawl: Contagious Language in The Right Stuff"). Wolfe describes the scene when Yeager broke his ribs before breaking the sound barrier in the X-1: "It is time to confide in somebody, and the logical man is Jack Ridley. Ridley is not only the flight engineer but a pilot himself and a good old boy from Oklahoma to boot. He will understand about Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving through the goddamned Joshua trees" (45). Readers can better understand Yeager's dilemma by hearing it how he would have phrased it. Wolfe had repeatedly described the fighter pilot's culture, which revolved around driving and drinking. Wolfe used that identical phrase in describing the dilemma Yeager faced. This phrase informs the readers that Wolfe is using the astronaut's voice to make his own point about the nature of the astronaut's "Right Stuff.

Mailer, however, characterizes the events of the Apollo-11 mission by using an alter-ego, Aquarius. He assumes the wild spirit of the 1960s. By encompassing the sexual, technological, and journalistic revolutions of the times, Mailer writes as a larger persona than if he were to write from only his point of view. It is significant how Mailer mixes both precise technical descriptions with his philosophical musings of the Aquarius character. Writing in the third person allowed Mailer to cover more topics because he distanced himself from them. In Meatless Days, Sara Suleri uses a similar technique by distancing herself from much of the book, by placing a picture of her sister on the cover and by discussing her family with as much fervor as she discusses her own feelings. Non-fiction writers often use this technique to distance themselves from personal material.

Whereas Mailer often uses an analogy in multiple ways, Wolfe uses an actual phrase repeatedly. Gravity is a common metaphor for Mailer, which he uses in different ways to talk about the astronauts desire to go to the moon and man's connections with each other. However, Wolfe uses phrases like, "drinking and driving" or "the Right Stuff" or the "Ziggurat" to talk about the culture of the fighter pilots. These two approaches are equally successful in making foreign experiences, such as flying faster than the speed of sound, part of a reader's consciousness. This allows Mailer and Wolfe to use analogies about gravity or speeches about the "right stuff" at the conclusions of their books without having to explain them to readers. They have given their reader's a vocabulary to understand the space program and its implications for society.

Although it is clear that Wolfe and Mailer comment about the space program, they use the screen of an objective journalistic voice to make readers accept as objective reporting a text that is actual filled with opinion. By using different techniques to connect readers with a modern crusade Wolfe and Mailer have shaped peoples' perceptions of history. New Journalism is an effective media of combining fact with narrative. Mailer and Wolfe maximized its format to speak about society, technology, and human consciousness. Their different styles gave them unique perspectives on the condition of man in an ever-expanding sphere of influence.


Mailer, Norman. Of a Fire on the Moon. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1970.

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980.

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Last modified 16 December 2003